B Prabhakaran, Managing Director, Thriveni Earth Movers
A man of colossal stature and deep pockets of influence, B Prabhakaran needs no introduction. He’s not just a mining baron but enjoys immense clout in the corridors of power both at the Centre and the state. Prabhakaran is not another ruthless business magnate; he’s known for a bevy of philanthropic activities and unique interventions in CSR space that has spun new stories of sustainable growth for people living at the periphery of high octane mining operations.
The story of this young contractor from Tamil Nadu is not the script of a Bollywood pot-boiler yet but it is no less compelling. Flashback to 2000- B Prabhakaran had not arrived- in fact he was in the soup. A project for which he had deployed his trucks and earthmovers was denied an extension. Another dam project in Arunachal Pradesh where he could have found comfort was bagged by a rival company. But, desperate to find his place in the sun, Prabhakaran bid for an iron ore mining project in Odisha. At that time, Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) was looking for a contractor. Prabhakaran who was 30 then won the contract and moved to Keonjhar with his mining equipment but found to his dismay that the mine lacked forest clearance. OMC kept on assuring him the clearance would come but how long could the young business man buy time?
The six feet tall, soft spoken Tamilian from Salem clinched his first deal with R P Sao. Thriveni had an unorthodox deal with Sao. Mining contractors are usually paid a fixed amount for the ore they raise but Sao agreed to pay 40 per cent of the sale price of iron ore. Then, there was no looking back for his company which bagged one deal after the other for every important miner in Odisha. Prabhakaran’s empire grew exponentially and he got the status of the alpha male of the state’s mining industry. There is a subsidiary of Thriveni Earthmovers which controls a coal mine in Indonesia. Prabhakaran is also known to own large chunks of land in Tamil Nadu. There are no authentic estimates to the wealth he has amassed but locals at Barbil feel he owns over Rs 10,000 crore. The figure could be even greater since Prabhakaran started operations during the period of iron ore boom. It was the time when the miners milked money by exporting huge quantities of iron ore.
Prabhakaran’s meteoric rise coincided with the iron ore boom. To encash China’s robust demand, miners took to rampant extraction of iron ore often in flagrant violation of the norms. When unhindered mining took the proportion of a scam, investigation followed both at the state and central levels. The M B Shah Commission of enquiry was appointed to dig into the facts of illegal mining. Prabhakaran’s company found multiple mentions in the report submitted by the Commission. The Commission’s findings unravelled that Thriveni’s role was not just limited to a mining contractor but it actually controlled many of these mines by proxy and appropriated huge earnings. A former Odisha finance minister Prafulla Ghadei went on to make an outrageous statement that Prabhakaran was one of the four people who controlled the Odisha government, he was later expelled for his remarks.
Prabhakaran, himself, vehemently denies these charges. Thriveni Earthmovers’ job is only that of a mine developer cum operator, the rest of the activities are done by the leaseholders, says he. He is a victim of an image dichotomy- in the eyes of the unsparing law- he’s indeed the Reddy of Barbil (drawing parallels with Janardhan Reddy, the key accused in Karnataka illegal mining scam), but for the poor who benefited from the spurt in mining activities, Prabhakaran is the fictional Robin Hood. He is believed to be a man with deep connections. They link him to the once all-powerful, now deceased Pyari Mohan Mohapatra. Mohapatra, however, refuted the liaisons with Prabhakaran, alleging the contractor was promoted by a former DMK minister and hence, had nothing to do with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). When Prabhakaran reached Keonjhar in 2000, it was a sleepy place. The iron ore boom was just about to begin- he met a clutch of miners whose mines were without clearances. Prabhakaran is believed to have worked with the son of DMK leader TR Baalu in a mining contract given by the Odisha government. This brought him in touch with both Baalu, and then A Raja, who succeeded him at the Environment Ministry. Prabhakaran has tried to steer clear of links with the DMK leaders- he says clearances for the mines were obtained by the consultants engaged by the miners. Controversies aside, Prabhakaran has been extending his humane touch to the area where he has flourished. He has made the locals the stakeholders in a company- Maa Tarini that owns mining trucks, rock breakers and drilling machines.